Swans were born during the heyday of New York's no wave reaction to punk rock, on the Lower East Side. Led by brainchild, guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Michael Gira, the group was formed after the demise of his first New York outfit, Circus Mort. Swans' first lineup consisted of Gira, guitarist Sue Hanel, and drummer Jonathan Kane. The trio played with kindred spirits Sonic Youth and did some rudimentary recordings that showcased the abrasive, percussively assaultive sonics Swans were later identified with. These initial sides surfaced on the Body to Body, Job to Job compilation. A different lineup included Kane, guitarist Bob Pezzola, and Daniel Galli-Duani on saxophone; they released a self-titled EP in 1982. The personnel changed again for the band's powerful debut, Filth, issued in 1983 on Germany's Zensor imprint. It included Gira, Kane, guitarist Norman Westberg, bassist Harry Crosby, and percussionist/drummer Roli Mosimann.
Swans began to garner an audience in Europe. Kaneleft after Filth was released, and Swans, who werebecoming known for their sheer musical brutality aswell as Gira's lyrics about violence, extreme sex,power, rage, and the margins of human depravity(sometimes in the same song), began to garner acult following at home with the release of 1984'sCop. The sound was essentially the same: extremevolume, slower than molasses tempos, detunedguitars, distorted electronics, and overamped drumsand percussion, but there were discernible traces of something approaching melody in Gira'scompositions and vocalizing. Further evidence ofthis new "accessibility" was heard on 1985's untitledEP, which featured the provocatively titled "Raping aSlave." It later became the EP's title. Swans' touringwas relentless, and while anything even approachingpopularity avoided them in the United States, theirEuropean audiences grew exponentially.
The band issued the EP Time Is Money (Bastard)and the full-length Greed at the beginning of 1986and another album, Holy Money, and the A Screw EP later. Holy Money marked a real change in the band'ssound, though its tactics were largely the same: theentrance into the band of two new influentialpresences: vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe and bassistAlgis Kizys, who began, albeit subtly at first, to shiftthe band's attack into something less assaultivesonically yet no less jarring emotionally. Jarboe andKizys would remain members of Swans until thegroup's extended hiatus began in 1997. Jarboe, whoactually was a member of the band as early as HolyMoney, would become a settled, foil-like presence for Gira as co-lead vocalist. Her presence signified theaddition of a new set of dynamics and textures tothe more brutal soundscapes the band put forth inits past. That said, when called upon to do so, shewas no less primal or forceful than Gira as a singer.
In 1987 the band moved to Caroline Records andissued Children of God, a double album that markedthe real transition between the two parts of theband's sound. Gira openly embraced the softeraspects being added to Swans' sonic architecture.Further evidence is provided by the beginning of Gira and Jarboe's new side project, Skin (World of Skin inthe United States), whose first album, Blood,Women, Roses, on which Jarboe was featured onlead vocals, was released. A subsequent album,Shame, Humility, Revenge, with Gira on lead vocals,was also recorded at the same time, but released ayear later. The German-only Swans set Real Love, asemi-official bootleg, was issued in 1987. Anotherdouble album, Feel Good Now, was issued by RoughTrade Records in 1988. Interestingly, despite Swansgaining attention for their own material (they regularly appeared in the pages of the Britishweeklies and each new release brought morelaudatory ink) and even placing albums on the indiecharts' lower rungs, it was ironically a single, a coverof Joy Division's immortal Love Will Tear Us Apart,that climbed the independent charts in June, andnearly topped them.
Fantastically, Swans were offered -- and signed -- acontract with major label MCA Records. Saved, theirfirst single for the label, was almost mainstream,given the band's roots. The subsequent album, The Burning World, produced by Bill Laswell, featuredanother cover; this one a gorgeous reading of BlindFaith's Can't Find My Way Home. The aggressive,savage brutality of the band's earlier recorded soundhad been almost entirely supplanted by a muchmore somber, elegiac, and acoustic approach tomusic-making, with lyrics sung (rather than shoutedor screamed) in duet between Gira and Jarboe;Westberg played as much acoustic guitar aselectric, Jarboe's keyboards all but floated throughthe mix, and Kizys employed the upper ranges of his bass as never before. The record didn't sell enoughto please MCA, however, and the band was dropped.
Live performances from Swans were another story. The group continued to play a violent music at outrageous volumes that were punishing for audience members, and sometimes displayed shocking and provocative stage antics. Crowds only grew. With critical backlash mounting and the band faced with new listeners, Gira gambled -- or reacted, depending on whose point of view one listens to. Instead of following up The Burning World with another album, he formed his own label, Young God, and spent the next few years reissuing earlier Swans material. Gira and Jarboe issued their final World of Skin album, Ten Songs for Another World, in 1990, but Swans didn't release another album until the stellar White Light from the Mouth of Infinity appeared in 1991. It was their most commercially viable yet adventurously experimental set to date, with a myriad of textures, dynamics, and sophisticated production techniques. Various forms of electronics were added to the other instruments, creating depth and dimension in the band's sound. The band toured the album in front of its largest audiences. In 1992 Swans issued the full-length Love of Life and the live set Omniscience.
In 1993 Jarboe released her first solo project, Beautiful People Ltd., in collaboration with keyboardist Lary Seven, offering an entirely different side of her mysterious multi-octave vocal persona in Swans -- it was a collection of neo-psychedelic pop songs. Gira, meanwhile, wrote fiction in earnest, resulting in the publication of his first book, "The Consumer and Other Stories", published by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 Press in 1995. Swans also resurfaced with the lauded The Great Annihilator. Jarboe issued her second solo offering, Sacrificial Cake, and Gira released his first solo album, Drainland, to boot. After touring with all the new material, the band reconvened later in the year to begin recording Soundtracks for the Blind, which was issued by Young God in 1996. The band did a final tour before Gira announced in early 1997 that Swans were finished. He began a new recording project that focused on his songwriting called the Angels of Light, and continued running Young God, a label that became an innovative force in independent music. Jarboe pursued a successful solo career, often employing former members of Swans as well as collaborating with artists including Tool's Maynard James Keenan and Jesu's Justin Broadrick, to name just two of the dozens. Gira also continued writing and publishing fiction.
In 2009, news surfaced via the Young God home page that Gira might reconvene Swans for a set of songs he had written. In early 2010 the words SWANS ARE NOT DEAD appeared on his MySpace page. The new version of the band consisted of former as well as new members including guitarists Westberg and Christoph Hahn, drummer/percussionist Phil Puleo and drummer Thor Harris, and bassist Chris Pravdica. The band recorded the album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which was released in September of 2010 on Young God. The live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head followed in 2012. In August of that year, Swans released the sprawling double album, The Seer, an album that Gira claimed was 30 years in the making.
- Thom Jurek, Rovi